Sunday, 5 August 2012

Barbra STREISAND/Kris KRISTOFFERSON: A Star Is Born


(#185: 2 July 1977, 2 weeks)

Track listing: Watch Closely Now/Queen Bee/Everything/Lost Inside Of You/Hellacious Acres/Love Theme From “A Star Is Born” (Evergreen)/The Woman In The Moon/I Believe In Love/Crippled Crow/Finale: With One More Look At You-Watch Closely Now/Reprise: Love Theme From “A Star Is Born” (Evergreen)

Two weeks ago, Frank Pierson died, at the age of eighty-seven. He was a distinguished screenwriter and only a very occasional film director. He also served a two-year term as President of the Writers Guild of America and did much work in television, including the series Have Gun, Will Travel, in which Richard Boone’s lead character was a rather more complex gunfighter than might have been expected. Among his screenplays were those for Cat Ballou, Cool Hand Luke, The Anderson Tapes, Truman, Conspiracy - and, perhaps most importantly, Dog Day Afternoon, which he almost singlehandedly hoisted above the usual run of bank heist movies by virtue of his multidisciplinary attention to character; everyone, from Al Pacino’s Sonny to the secretaries in the back room, making the best of humours out of a potentially perilous situation, gets due attention and their own, independent perspective (indeed, it is a wonder that an otherwise grim-sounding story frequently strolls with confidence into the field of comedy). John Cazale’s Sal is the one for whom we feel generally sorry (since he is also the film’s only “victim”), but for me the film falls just short of greatness due to Pacino’s somewhat grandstanding performance; as much as the viewer sympathises with Sonny’s character and especially his underlying dilemma, Pacino seems so ready to run the gamut of what he can do as an actor that he looks to be preparing a showreel rather than paying attention to character or story.

Still, Pacino’s “ownership” of the film must have appealed to Barbra Streisand in particular, as she set about making what was, to all intents and purposes, her own showreel; and so Pierson was hired to do, as he put it, a “fast rewrite” of a seventies rock version of A Star Is Born, and only accepted the job on condition that he also direct – Jerry Schatzberg had already directed some sequences, and Jon Peters, Streisand’s former hairdresser and then her partner, spent a while in the director’s chair before Pierson took over. For the magazine New West he wrote a piece entitled “My Battles With Barbra And Jon” to which I refer the curious reader for a (at times, literally) blow-by-blow account of the travails involved in piecing the film together.

The Star Is Born concept already had a troubled history. The concept originated, more or less, in the mind of David O. Selznick, and first manifested itself in George Cukor’s 1932 film What Price Hollywood?, a movie which, with typical Selznickian fence-sitting, acknowledged the faults of the system but resolutely refused to point a finger. This is, however, perhaps the most interesting variation on the theme; Constance Bennett plays Mary Evans, the Brown Derby waitress who tries for and gets a career, but the male figure in decline is not an actor – Bennett’s character has an affair with an actor, but this is quite separate and distinct from the main plot – but a director, Max Carey, systematically killing himself with alcohol (as indeed was Lowell Sherman, the actor and sometime director who played Carey and himself died two years later, not yet fifty).

William Wellman directed the first bona fide movie version of A Star Is Born five years later, with a screenplay based on a précis by Wellman and Robert Carson but also involving contributions from, amongst others, Alan Campbell, Dorothy Parker, Budd Schulberg and Ring Lardner; it was the latter two who came up with the climactic proclamation: “This is Mrs. Norman Maine.” But it is still not really Mrs. Norman Maine’s picture; Janet Gaynor, then thirty-one (and therefore not truly convincing as an ingénue), plays the Esther Blodgett/Vicki Lester well enough but a bit stiffly; we as an audience never really connect with her. Whereas it is most definitely Fredric March’s picture; he gives a very quiet and reserved performance as Norman Maine which hints at reasons for his decline, and possibly even his alcoholism, beyond his control – the film makes it fairly clear that Maine’s career is being downsized largely because of the changing whims of the public’s tastes; he makes flop after flop, so the studio has to let him go. But the story doesn’t play true; there is a lot of adolescent fantasy in the thought of March’s Maine wandering off into the Pacific, but never a transmitted feeling that he is doing this for Gaynor’s Lester, or that Gaynor’s Lester has a talent so large that he has to sacrifice himself so as not to get in her way. At the Oscars, Wellman admitted that the screenplay award might as well have gone to Selznick, and indeed the statuette in question remains, I believe, in the keeping of Selznick’s family and descendants to this day.

Not long afterwards, Selznick seemed to want to try living out the story for real; he found Phyllis Isley and transmogrified her into Jennifer Jones, with immense tragedies on both sides as a result. In 1944 Jones was asked to play the Blodgett/Lester part in a radio adaptation of the story, and Selznick intervened, complaining that the script was almost completely centred on Maine (played by the unlikely Walter Pidgeon) and that the female lead’s part must be written up, as it largely (to Selznick) comprised bland, throwaway lines of dialogue. This must in some way have influenced his old friend Cukor, who took on direction of the 1954 remake with Judy Garland and James Mason. Although Selznick had no direct involvement in this version (other than harassing for legal rights to the story, which he finally did not win), Garland’s then husband, Sid Luft, was the producer, and while the end result does not quite end up as a late period Garland showreel, it does not hold together either; Mason, then forty-five (to March’s forty), was the opposite of Norman Maine in every way; professional, courteous, helpful. But Garland (then thirty-two, so the ingénue angle still refused to play) was by that time effectively Norman Maine’s doppelganger, and, much like the 1937 version, the film is largely remembered as a series of setpieces (“The Man That Got Away”) that doesn’t coalesce as a single tale.

John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion had not seen either version by the time they prepared their screenplay for the seventies remake, but liked the notion of updating the idea to the hard-sell culture of early seventies rock. Didion originally had Carly Simon in mind as Blodgett/Lester, but this fell through when Simon insisted on having James Taylor as her co-star. Eventually the concept drifted into the hands of Streisand and Peters, and thereafter fell to pieces. Kris Kristofferson – a musician with actual credibility (he was cited as an avatar by Cybill Shepherd’s Betsy in Taxi Driver) and also, as proved by Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid, a fine actor, was involved in the very early stages but dropped out. Various other ideas for male leads were mooted – and Streisand’s first choice seems to have been Elvis.

Presley was initially quite keen on the idea; he was forty-one, bored with Vegas, possibly bored with life, and looking for a way back into movies. But then Colonel Parker kept raising unreasonable bars, insisting on top billing, unrealistic sums of money, etc., although I think the final refusal was borne of Presley himself, who saw perhaps too clearly that the story of a self-destructing rock star was too close to his own. Other suggestions were made, including Marlon Brando, Mick Jagger and Neil Diamond, none of whom I can imagine playing the role with any degree of conviction – in keeping with the times, the male lead was now named John Norman Howard, which looks a little too close for comfort to the mild-mannered film composer and arranger James Newton Howard, and the female lead kept her birth name of Esther Hoffmann.

Kristofferson was finally persuaded to step back in and play the part – mostly because no one else wanted to – but the making of the film was a painful process for all involved; to play drunk, Kristofferson (then also forty, to Streisand’s thirty-four) would get drunk. There were arguments and fights. Rather than Kristofferson supplying his own songs, Streisand hired Paul Williams to act as the film’s musical director; he in turn hired various reliables (Rupert Holmes, Kenny Loggins, even Leon Russell) to help turn out songs, but it is true that Williams hated the experience, and it shows in the songs.

If you ever listen to the Star Is Born soundtrack and wonder why “Evergreen” is the only thing people now remember from it, or indeed the film (and significantly it is one of only two of the album’s songs with direct compositional input from Streisand, setting Williams’ words to her music), then that is because it is the only track here that works as a song, independent of vanity project cinema; Streisand suddenly eases (“Love, soft as an eeeee-asy chair…”) with total and relaxed assurance into her comfort zone. She addresses the song with great integrity and heartfelt emotion, and these are qualities significantly absent from everything else here.

The film is more or less incoherent. Admittedly, my memories of it are based on the only time I can remember it being screened on television, when ITV sneaked it onto their Monday night schedule in the mid-eighties, but I do recall seemingly endless sequences set in vast, hot arenas where we are expected to believe that tens of thousands of rockers are entranced by Streisand’s supper club act, interspersed with equally endless sequences of Barbara and Kris doing it every which way, at one point indulging in a metaphorical mud fight. In the sparse pores that still exist in the film, some residue of plot is poured through, and despite the occasional smart one-liner (mostly, to my ears, coming from Didion, who as someone who both knew and wrote definitively about the Doors, must have shaken her head in infinite sadness at the mockery of rock that was now on screen – how better would A Star Is Born have been if Jim Morrison had lived to play opposite Liza Minnelli?) there is no clear picture of the back-biting world of the seventies rock scene, nor any plausible explanation of what the hell a hell-raiser like Howard would have seen in a prissy Broadway wannabe like Hoffmann, why he should care and why they end up together. I cannot even remember how he dies – he didn’t walk into the water (as Peters put it, who would, after Jaws?) but whether he overdosed or did the (in)decent thing another way I cannot in truth remember. He is virtually a side attraction to the pumping ego of Streisand, and it is a wonder that he got a co-credit on the album as apart from his three songs he is, when not invisible, inaudible.

As for these three songs of his, they are dreadful. I concede that, to convincingly play the part of an alcoholic wreck of a rock star, Kristofferson would have chosen to sing his songs as a bloated beach whale of an alcoholic wreck, and on that level his wasted croak has some effect, even if it leaves the listener with the impression of an unholy cross between the Muppets’ Animal and Barry McGuire. But “Watch Closely Now” simply does not work as a mid-seventies stadium stomper; to paraphrase Jeff Lynne’s father, with the exception of “Evergreen,” these tunes have no tunes. The expensive hired help session players – Booker T Jones is there somewhere amongst them – do not replicate the directness and telepathy of Springsteen’s E. Street Band (which audibly sounds like what they are trying to get at, or reproduce), the song’s twists and turns are too awkward, a clumsy horn section brings back misplaced memories of the Doors’ “Touch Me,” and Kristofferson essentially groans his way through the song, as though carrying twenty refrigerators on his back for fifty blocks. “Are you a figment of my imagination,” he rhetorically asks the audience, “or am I one of yours?” No doubt he wished that the film was a figment of his imagination.

Streisand makes her first appearance as a member of a girl group called “The Oreos” – a white girl in the middle of two black girls, geddit (they couldn’t get away with it now)? – with “Queen Bee,” a feeble LaBelle retread full of asinine insect-woman-sex analogies (the two black girls are seventies session stalwarts Clydie King and Venetta Fields). Why, one wonders, would John Norman Howard go anywhere near this kind of trash, let alone be attracted to it, or by it?

“Everything” is the first of Barbra’s Big Ballads here, and it is musical Ayn Rand (Rush’s lyrics have nothing on “Everything” in this respect). She begins “I don’t want much, I just want more” and it is the standard schtick of quiet beginning leading up to titanic ending where indeed she admits that she wants “more of everything.” Any sensible person would run a million miles from her, although I wonder whether the couplet “I’d like to have the perfect twin/One who’d go out as I came in” was a nod to Presley. She is not Patti LaBelle, but neither (despite “Stoney End”) is she Laura Nyro. “Lost Inside Of You” was done with Leon Russell in his “A Song For You” mood, and as the big ballad duet with Kristofferson it falls flat; Streisand is so in your ear that Kristofferson’s non-committal groans and whispers are practically inaudible. A choir quickly wipes him out, and at the end of the song Streisand, fittingly, is duetting with herself.

“Hellacious Acres,” belched, and occasionally proto-rapped, by Kristofferson (at times he sounds almost like a Brownsville Steve Harley), is atrocious, like a below par Alice Cooper rewrite of “Hotel California” (“Admission’s free – you pay to get out”) and despite the singer’s desperate ad libs (“Even the President needs money!”) the song is stuck in a 1972 straitjacket, complete with outdared references to Tricky Dicky, rather than the damning indictment of a dead culture that might once have been suggested. His growls of “steady!...steady!” require the suspension of disbelief that anyone would pay more than a quarter, and then demand a refund, to listen to this junk.

But there he is again, at the beginning of side two, faced with a hostile audience (“At ease,” he wearily repeats four times) and attempting to get them interested in Esther Hoffmann (“This is a benefit for a good cause”). Streisand, as usual, steadily builds up from tentative, hesitant introduction to bombastic defiance (some of these songs surpass “My Way” for unapologetic narcissism) and the closing cheers are wholly unconvincing; why would anyone in the Sun Devil Stadium, let alone the Grady Gammage Auditorium, expect to be transformed by glossy show tunes? As for “I Believe In Love,” Streisand goes disco in the Manilow/“Copacabana” sense, and the song soon strangles itself with its needless complexities, despite the singer doing her best (“WHAAAAAT??”). Almost the last we hear from Howard/Kristofferson is “Crippled Crow,” a song that had been knocking about since 1972, and while Presley may have found this fertile ground for emotional and metaphysical self-examination, again Kristofferson makes out as though he is grinding his way through “Eve Of Destruction,” and the song fails to move or affect.

After that, Kristofferson realises his own redundancy and disappears, leaving a glassy, anonymous announcer’s voices: “Ladies and gentleman…Esther Hoffmann Howard.” This is a terrible betrayal of the one line that everyone remembers from the Cukor originals, since in the hands of Garland in particular, the line becomes not just a gesture of defiance but also a renewal of life, a Hollywood Bodhisattva – make way for the young (even if, like Garland, they are thirty-two). Now it becomes as unattributable that it might as well be electronically generated; and there she is, Esther, alone in the spotlight, weeping her way through the first song (particularly on its final three lines) before gathering her strength – it really couldn’t be anyone else’s – to sing the song Mr Howard sang at the beginning of the record, turning it round, and finally relenting to rock, at which latter Streisand is the very essence of unconvincing. “Are you watching me now?” she cries out repeatedly at song’s end – and one is left with the indelible feeling that this is all she wanted to achieve with this film; for people to watch her, and only her.

The sequence fades into a quick reprise of “Evergreen,” this time with the equally inaudible ghost of Kristofferson mumbling in the background. The song ends. “Holy Moses!” sighs an exhausted but sated Kristofferson. “Ah!” Streisand retorts. The film is as muddy and ambiguous as that. It was a huge hit (out-grossing both Cukor films), as was the album – hence its inclusion here – but as a home-movie exercise in ego massaging it makes me wonder, looking at the front cover, whether these people are really Fozzie Bear and Miss Piggy, and marvel at how much more real the Muppets are than this attempted indentation of the Streisand brand on our inner eyelids.

3 comments:

jezllewellyn said...

I have been strangely drawn to the idea of A Star is Born down the years. I do love Evergreen, mainly because, I think it was on the radio when my awareness of music emerged blinking in the sunlight. I was a little impressionable. THe rest of the album is mystifying in its unrelenting awfulness. I bought a vinyl version quite recently and it clearly wasn't intended for 21st Century consumption.

I have looked out for the film down the years, which I probably have mistakenly bracketed together with Stardust. There is something compelling about portrayals of rock stars on a downward spiral. As I recall Kristofferson's character goes on an ill advised trip in his sports car. It goes far to fast for his alcohol impaired ability and he disappears over the brow of a hill. His career and his addiction are beyond salvation. As the film ends Streisand's character looks destined for greatness though.

Marcello Carlin said...

Thanks for that - I didn't think he walked into the ocean and certainly didn't remember him OD'ing or similar; the sports car exit was the only option left, really. And of course, as you say, Streisand's Hoffmann looks set to hit the heights at the end - which was probably Barbra's game plan from the start.

jezllewellyn said...

I also recall a scene from near the end of the film which I found quite sad, whereby Hoffman plays a tape alone in the mansion which KK's character has recorded of him singing a song (maybe in a vein bid to write a new hit). She hears his voice talking to himself and thinks for a split second that he is in the room, but he is no more.